Polledri's return

Jake Polledri
Azzurri back rower Jake Polledri is back.

After two long absences through injury and the indescribable pain of a family bereavement, the 28-year-old from Bristol has debuted with his new team, the Zebre of Parma, making him a legitimate candidate for new Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada’s plans.

A double ordeal of shoulder and knee problems now behind him, it is reasonable for Italian fans to look forward to the prospect of one of their most effective performers in recent seasons returning to Guinness Six Nations action in 2024.

Whilst the result against South Africa’s Cheetahs wasn’t the one he had hoped for, Polledri sees the bigger picture and the satisfaction gained from being part of the match day environment is palpable.

“I’m really happy because it’s been a long time fighting hard and it was a big change coming over to Italy, moving the family here,” said the former Gloucester man. “But every bit of hardship in moving over is made easier when you get a moment like that with the fans and having the family here at the match as well.”

Polledri was speaking just 48 hours before the first official get-together for the national squad under new boss Gonzalo Quesada – conveniently in Polledri’s new home city. The head coach was at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi to run the rule over several potential squad members, and called up an enlarged group of forty-six players in order to lay out his rugby philosophy.

Polledri says: “[Quesada] is new and I haven't had the chance to talk to him yet, although he has come to see some of Zebre's training sessions. On this occasion it's just one day and so it’s basically to find out the values he wants to imprint on the team and the style of rugby that will best suit Italy's new direction. Frankly, I can't wait.”

His outing against the Cheetahs was followed by a Challenge Cup victory against Oyonnax, making it somewhat inevitable that we should expect to see Polledri involved at some stage during the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.

"It's extraordinary and I think that being here in Italy now can help me in this, because I'm in closer contact with all the staff anyway and then at the same time it also helps me improve my language skills. With time, I can see that I'm making progress.”

It would be a surprise if Quesada were to make any major changes so early in his reign, given that there will be only a few weeks to prepare for the 2024 Championship. It suggests the Azzurri will commence with the foundation group established by the Crowley regime, making the necessary adjustments as the season progresses.

"It is difficult for me to say what [those changes] will be,” admits Polledri. “Also, I wasn’t part of the group that played in the World Cup in France. I’ve been watching the team like any fan watches the games, and following it in the media, and I think there has been and maybe still is some disappointment, so what I expect above all is a reaction.

“What we have to think about is continuing the process of improvement and being able to have a positive reaction to the Rugby World Cup."

As ever, Italy boast an embarrassment of riches in the back row: Michele Lamaro looks set to stay in situ as captain; Sebastian Negri was perhaps the best of the Azzurri at France 2023; Manuel Zuliani looks in top shape; the possibility of an Alessandro Izekor-Giacomo Ferrari reunion; Toa Halafihi, Giovanni Pettinelli and Lorenzo Cannone going well for Benetton; and the return of Polledri’s Zebre captain Giovanni Licata. Still, you would back Polledri’s name to be firmly in the mix.

“Competition is always good. I was out of the game for a while mainly because of the shoulder problem and now I am more than happy to be back in the group,” says Polledri. “Our back row is top quality and this pushes me to constantly want to improve and always raise the bar performance-wise. It’s something that helps to improve our rugby and team culture, and of course it can only help the team’s performance at the same time.”

After a World Cup there have always been some unpredictable surprises in the Championship. What should we expect from the 2024 edition?

"France will probably be the most disappointed team what with it having been a home tournament,” he answers. “They will want to prove something more than the others. It is always a tough tournament, especially for us who are still arriving there as underdogs, but our goal will always be to get results and spring some surprises. The mentality must be to look as much as possible at home games and try to win those.

The date circled in red on the calendar is February 3rd, when the Guinness Six Nations kicks off for Italy in Rome against his home country, England. Is that a fixture this ‘new Italy’ team will be getting excited for? "One hundred per cent,” comes his response. “We can shock teams, so we’ve just got to play well and not make silly mistakes.”